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On the Trail of Twinflowers

Given that today marks the birthday of one of the most important naturalists in world history, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, also know as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus), the so-called “Pliny of the North”, “Flower King”, “Second Adam”, and perhaps most objectively “Father of Taxonomy”, I thought if would feature his namesake favorite flower, Linnaea borealis, more commonly known as the twinflower. I’ve been searching for this plant for my own garden for some time, but it has remained elusive. Linnaeus didn’t discover this rather humble plant, a native of the northern regions of his ancestral Sweden, but almost as soon as he gained fame and titles for his work he adopted it as his personal emblem. His constant commemoration, in Sweden and elsewhere, often encompasses the twinflower–first among all of the other specimens he classified in his groundbreaking system of binomial nomenclature.

Twinflower and Linnaeus Sculpture

Bust of Linnaeus with twinflowers, Dictionnaire pittoresque dhistoire naturelle et des phénomènes de la nature (1833-1839); Portraits of Linnaeus, twinflowers in hand, by Martin Hoffman (Wellcome Library) and Mrs. Anderson (1858; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).

In tribute to Linnaeus, the linnaea borealis is the national flower of Sweden, and so it can be found everywhere: on fabrics, pottery, calendars, and cocktail napkins. All of those things are available over here too, and the plants apparently, but I just can’t find one. I know they will grow here in Massachusetts, I’ve picked out a lovely little place among the woodland plants in the back of my garden, but it remains linnaea-less. The long Memorial Day weekend is always a big nursery/gardening time for me, so I’ll try, try again, but I don’t have much hope: I might have to be satisfied with material substitutes. Anyway, on this appropriately beautiful May day, a toast to Carl Linnaeus, without whom we would all be wandering around in a very chaotic world of nature, and to his beloved twinflower!

linnaea_borealis_flowers_lg

Twinflower

Linnaea Borealis Felted

Linnaea Borealis China

ASDA photograph of twinflowers by Allison Brown; teaching slide from the Annals of Botany, “Limited mate availability decreases reproductive success of fragmented populations of Linnaea borealis, a rare, clonal selfincompatible plant” (maybe this explains my problem! Limited mate availability! Self-incompatible!); felted twinflowers on Art thats Felt; a portfolio of Linnaea Borealis porcelain from Hackefors and Svaneholm.


Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

Park 002

Lawn Dice

Dice Smithfield Decretals BL

Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.


The ABCs of Slavery

I’ve always been a hunter and gatherer of old stuff, and the first “collection” I assembled while still in my early 20s was of nineteenth-century pearlware children’s plates, primarily ABC and nursery plates intended for instruction and edification: I had quite a few of Franklin’s Maxims, a few domestic scenes, animals, and lots of Robinson Crusoe: I still have the latter, one elephant plate, and a fortune-telling scene, but I sold off the rest a decade or so, along with all of my transferware. When I was hunting around for these little plates, I remember seeing some that were a bit political, and wondering: why would children care about free trade? But slavery was a far more passionate and accessible topic, and quite a few abolitionist ABC plates appeared in the mid nineteenth-century, especially after the production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These plates were produced primarily in Britain for the northern American market, and the Staffordshire potteries had the dual motivation of meeting (and perhaps creating) demand in America while presenting themselves as morally superior to their cousins across the Atlantic: there is an amazing transfer-printed jug in the collection of the Winterthur Museum which advertises all the available patterns along with one scene in which showing “Britannia Protecting the Africans”. The British were so very clever at catering to both sides in the struggle over slavery in America: preaching to the North while buying cotton from the South! The Winterthur collection also contains an anti-slavery ABC plate based on the work of Mary Belson Elliot, “blending sound Christian principles with cheerful cultivation”, and a popular children’s mug first sold at the 1846 Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair, along with the wonderful Anti-Slavery Alphabet produced by the Townsend sisters.

Anti-slavery plate Winterthur Collection

Anti-slavery Mug Winterthur Collection

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters A and B

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters M and N

From the Winterthur Museum Collections:  Staffordshire pearlware jug made by Christopher Whitehead, c. 1817-1819, ABC plate, c. 1800-1830, and child’s mug, c. 1795-1865; Pages from the Anti-Slavery Alphabet of Philadelphia sisters Hannah and Mary Townsend, 1846.

The particular plate that returned my attention to ABC plates in general and anti-slavery ABC products in particular is a lot in the upcoming Memorial Day Auction at Northeast Auctions: “Gathering Cotton”. This is a Staffordshire plate as well, but produced later than the Winterthur pieces (between 1850 and 1865) and its meaning/purpose is far less straightforward:  I can’t tell if it’s for or against slavery! With children front and center, I assume it is anti-, but it projects a far less strident message than other plates that were produced at this time, primarily based on  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with scenes such as “The Buyer and Seller of the Human Article” and  “Uncle Tom Whipped to Death” depicted. Once the Civil War began, the messaging of ABC plates became even more straightforward, with simple depictions of Union generals produced, of course, in Great Britain.

ABC Plate Gathering Cotton

ABC Plate Human Article

ABC Uncle Tom plate

General McClellan Plate Cowan's Auctions

“Gathering Cotton” and other mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire ABC plates, from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Decorative Arts Database, referenced in two great articles: Louise L. Stevenson’s “Virtue Displayed: the Tie-Ins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here), and Jill Weitzman Fenichell’s “Fragile Lessons: Ceramic and Porcelain Representations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here). “The Arrival of General McClellan” Staffordshire ABC plate, Cowan’s Auctions.


Ephemera-esque

At the end of last semester, one of my students gave me a beautiful card with what looked like a vintage (1920s-1940s) lithograph of the House of the Seven Gables. I just loved it–not just the sentiment inside, but also the image outside, which looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. So I went right to the producer, Lantern Press, and found a treasure trove of images in all forms (cards, posters, souvenirs of all sorts), some actual reproductions of vintage lithographs, some “vintage-esque”: travel posters, crate labels, old postcards, lots of maps, both regional and global in content and perspective. Very accessible ephemera with no need to get your hands dirty hunting through flea market boxes: you can even get one of the oldest Salem Witch postcards in the form of a refrigerator magnet (if you must).

Some old, some new: a few examples from Lantern Press’s inventory of images:

Lantern Press Gables Card Cover

Lantern Press Golf

Lantern Press Umbrella Card

Lantern Press Blue Ridge Parkway

Lantern Press Capes


The Historiscope

I’m fascinated by a visual device produced by Milton Bradley in the later nineteenth century called “The Historiscope:  A Panorama and History of America”. Swann Auction Galleries has one for sale in their upcoming auction. Here’s the description and an image: Printed hand-colored box, 5 1/4 inches tall, 8 1/4 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches deep, with long paper scroll on two spindles within, and mounted on a later(?) painted board; lacking wooden crank pieces and rear cover with caption information, otherwise moderate wear to exterior. The scroll is difficult to turn and has not been examined in full; sold as is. (MRS) [Springfield, MA?]: [Milton Bradley & Co.], circa 1870.

Historiscope Swann Auctions April 14

What fascinates me about this panorama is the early attempt to introduce some interaction into history instruction, although Jennifer Lynn Peterson (in “The Historiscope and the Milton Bradley Company:  Art and Commerce in Nineteenth-century Aesthetic Education, Getty Research Journal, No. 6 (2014): 175-184) informs me that each box came with a script, an “eight-page dramatic description of all the images in the moving panorama, characterized by a lively tone and filled with numerous attempts at humor”. So maybe it was a rather one-way “show”. The other thing that interests me is what the selective/reflective nature of this lens: any historiscope much necessarily reflect the society which produces it rather than the “history” which it purports to reveal. If we could turn the scroll of this Swann lot, we would see 25 iconic images of early American history, including the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, Pocahontas and John Smith, the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. (Another contemporary Milton Bradley product, the Myriopticon, focuses solely on scenes from the Civil War, or “Rebellion”). Would the same scenes have been chosen in 1920, or 1950, or 2000, or now? I’m fairly certain that Columbus would not make it into our 2015 historiscope, at least not in his circa 1870 characterization.

Historiscope Cover Yale

Historiscope Native AMericans Getty

Historiscope Christopher Columbus

Box cover and scenes (Native Americans in full regalia before the arrival of Columbus and the man himself) from Milton Bradley’s Historiscope, c. 1870, Beinecke Library, Yale University and Getty Museum.

So I guess the theatre-guise of the Milton Bradley Historiscope is appropriate: it projects as well as reflects. Even modern historiscopes function this way, literally: my case in point is the Historoscope de Saint-Laurent project in Montreal, which utilizes architectural projection to tell the story of a neighborhood. I love it, and I think it’s probably the best we can do with this genre while we wait (forever) for the development of a real historiscope, a time-traveling telescope which can reveal the past rather than just scroll or screen it.

P.S. Another Milton Bradley Historiscope is available here, mounted on cute little legs!


Hardcovers

I had been wanting to write a post on Black Beauty, the first “real” book I ever read and one that shaped my childhood in several ways, for some time, and as today marks the birthday of its author, Anna Sewall, this seemed like the perfect time. So this weekend I brought out my old copy for inspiration but almost as soon as I opened it up I realized I could not read this book again, much less write about it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a wonderful book:  I just don’t want to go through the horse’s painful journey again. Of course everything turns out all right for Black Beauty in the end, but Sewall gives him such a strong voice, and fills his story with so many harrowing, realistic details, that the moment I opened up the book (after decades) it all came rushing back. I can’t imagine how I had the courage to read this tome in the first place at age seven or eight: the fearfulness of youth, I suppose! But I’m not going back: the protective material side of me has surfaced, fortunately, and I’m going to focus on the decorative aspects of books today instead of their content.

Black Beauty 1st ed.

Black Beauty 1897

Black Beauty 2011

Covers of Black Beauty:  1877 first edition, 1897, and 2011 Penguin Threads edition–with design by Jillian Tamaki.

Enough of suffering, compassion and sanctuary! Like anything that seems likely to go away, books have becoming more precious as objects for some time, both in their original form and in variations and adaptions. One company that seems to be bridging the gap between literature and art is Juniper Books, which offers ready-made and custom collections of books gathered around a particular author or theme with covers and spines designed to decorate the bookshelf. When they can’t find an appropriate set of books to house their designs–they just cover up odd volumes–and so we have an Ernest Hemingway set of elephant-embellished books and an anonymous set of elephant-embellished books, all ready for a pachyderm-themed study (like mine).

Hardovers Juniper Books Hemingway Set

Hardcovers Elephant Book Set

And if you’re just looking for book forms, there are a variety of options: ceramic books are my particular preference of this genre –book-shaped vases and flasks go way back, at least to the eighteenth century. A couple of years ago I bought up as many of the book candles below as I could obtain at Anthropologie (a store that will put candles in anything and everything): I didn’t particularly care for the candles (still intact); I just liked the “books”. They are long gone from the store now, but these more colorful book vases are still very much in stock. A bit more sophisticated examples from Seletti and Kim Marsh are available here and here, and I suspect I could gather much more.

Hardcovers 030

Anthropologie ceramic book vases

Book Vases

Hardcovers Kim Marsh


Lion’s Paw

When I was assembling my portfolio of Renaissance “green” merchants, I came across a Lorenzo Lotto portrait that I had seen long ago and then forgotten: I remember being perplexed by it then and remain so now. It is Man with a Golden Paw, dated 1527, featuring a man leaning forward and slightly to the side with a (embellished, sincere) hand on his heart and a lion’s paw in his other hand. When I first saw the portrait in my early 20s I remember being struck by his appearance (is he wearing earmuffs?), now I’m more interested in the lion’s paw.

Lorenzo_Lotto Lion's Paw

Lorenzo Lotto, Man with a Golden Paw, 1527, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The meaning and placement of this particular paw has not been established with great certainty, but most art historians seem to think it offers a clue about the name or occupation of the sitter: a Leo-like name, a goldsmith? Lions in general, and pieces of lions in particular, are so often utilized in art forms throughout history that context is all-important. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the lion had myriad religious and secular associations: as the long-reigning King of Beasts, he represents strength, majesty, courage and fortitude, even Resurrection. Conversely, but still expressions of his power, the lion could represent pride or vengeful wrath. In religious iconography he is associated most strongly with St. Mark and St. Jerome, who removed a painful thorn from a lion’s paw and received a friend and servant for life in return: any possibilities for our painting in this particular story? In various poses, the lion represents a range of attributes in heraldic devices as well, always kingship, bravery, fierceness, and more subtle watchfulness (as it was a medieval belief that lions slept with their eyes open). Lotto’s paw-holding man holds my interest because at this point in time (again, 1527) the lion reference could mean anything: a rather mundane association to family name or profession, a testimony to skill, strength, or power, an expression of faith. But not long after this moment, his prized paw will be reduced to a mere decorative motif, shorn of its long-held symbolism and so commonly featured in the decorative arts from the eighteenth century onwards that it becomes almost invisible–certainly not the focal point of the piece.

Detached (literally and symbolically) lion’s paws, 17th- 21st centuries:

Lion's Paw Furniture Mount MET

Lion's Paw Raphael

Lion's Paw excavation

Lion's Paw bookend RH

Gilt Bronze Lion’s paw furniture mount, French, late 17th-early 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sketches of Raphael Cartoons by Sir James Thornhill, c. 1729-1731, Victoria and Albert Museum; Excavated Lion’s Paw from the Victorian conservatory at Tyntesfield, Archaeology National Trust SW; Lion’s Paw bookends, Restoration Hardware.


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